As questions continue to be raised over the Cambodian government’s legitimacy following the landslide victory of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in July’s election, Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to be met by protests when he attends a United Nations summit on Thursday in New York.
The July election was held after the CPP oversaw the banning of the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, prompting sharp criticism from the international community.
Hun Sen’s CPP won all 125 seats in parliament in the vote, marking a departure from pluralist democracy outlined in the country’s constitution.
Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than three decades, will be in New York this week to attend the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly.
To demand political solutions, hundreds of Cambodian-Americans will stage protests on September 29 against Hun Sen’s trip, according to the man leading the protest organization, former opposition official Hing Soksan.
“I think the West will try to use all sorts of means to bring Cambodia back to democracy,” said Soksan, adding he hoped the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, would raise Cambodia’s political situation with Hun Sen.
“We want the UN Secretary-General to raise the issue of declining democracy and human rights in Cambodia,” he said. “The UN has to express concerns since they don’t want democracy going back,” he added.
An estimated 300 to 500 protestors are expected to travel to New York from other states in the US to join the protest, according to Soksan.
The main demands are the dropping of charges against opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was released from jail this month after being detained for over a year but placed under house arrest. He faces treason charges, which were not dropped and while a ban on the political participation of 118 opposition officials also remains in place.
“Cambodia should consider again to restore the situation back to the issue will not be raised in the UN assembly, which will affect Cambodia’s image,” said Soksan.
Hun Sen is expected to deliver a statement focusing on “recent developments and major achievements by the Royal Government and on various regional and international issues of common concern,” according to Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry.
He is expected to hold a bilateral meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, while the Cambodian foreign minister will hold a meeting with officials from dozens of countries, including United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for the Secretary-General, told VOA Khmer that Guterres was concerned about democracy in Cambodia and hoped that the situation will change.
“At this stage, we continue to emphasize that you need fair competition and respect for human rights. Those are essential building blocks for a solid democracy to develop. Anyway, that is our hope for Cambodia,” he said.
Ahead of Cambodia’s election, which was seen as “flawed” by the United States, the UN Secretary-General said that an inclusive and pluralistic political process remains essential for safeguarding the progress made by Cambodia in consolidating peace.
“He calls upon the government to uphold international human rights standards and in particular to ensure guarantees for civil society actors and political parties to exercise their democratic rights. He reiterates the continued commitment of the United Nations to support a peaceful and democratic Cambodia that fully respects the human rights of all its citizens,” a July 27 statement read.
Prime Minister Hun Sen last week rejected criticism of his government’s legitimacy and speculation that Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations could be suspended over the country’s move to one-party politics. The speech came after several CNRP members now living overseas suggested that Cambodia could be suspended from UN membership.
“Cambodia is a sovereign state ... please do not be confused. I want to stress that Cambodia will hold commune elections in 2022 and a national election in 2023,” he said during a meeting with factory workers, adding that the international community should not wait for the “resurrection of the dead,” a reference to the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
“I do not bow down to anyone,” Hun Sen continued. “If we agree, we work together. If we don’t agree, leave. Suspend us. It does not make any sense to keep talking,” Hun Sen added.
Phay Siphan, Cambodian government spokesman said that Hun Sen had “full rights representing Cambodia” at the UN, adding that there will be no discussion on Cambodia’s politics during the bilateral meeting with the UN Secretary General.
"There is not any reason that United Nations should oppose the Cambodian people's will," he said.
However, Paul Chambers, international affairs advisor at Thailand's Naresuan University, said: “Hun Sen's trip to the UN is all about galvanizing legitimacy for his regime and criticizing the USA and the EU, which he has portrayed as bullying Cambodia.”
“The international community is divided between countries like China and Russia, which see Hun Sen as useful to their interests, and the US and EU, which see Hun Sen as not only a human rights violator but also as a lackey of China,” he added.
For more than 25 years, the West helped to rebuild Cambodia as it was recovering from the mass abuses of the Khmer Rouge regime, which left an estimated 1.7 million people dead.
The United States and Europe provided billions of dollars in aid to transform Cambodia into a liberal democracy. Currently, the United States and EU are considering possible sanctions on Cambodia and its removal from a key EU preferential trade scheme.
“When countries look at how the CPP won every seat in the National Assembly while the courts and the military answer to the ruling party alone, it is near impossible for the international community to consider Cambodia anything beyond a facade democracy,” Chambers said.